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Photo: KUOW
Civic poet Claudia Castro Luna created Seattle’s Poetic Grid and, leading workshops in libraries, helped residents express how they feel about the places they know.

My friend Ronnie Hess, a Wisconsin poet, linked to this story on Facebook, adding, “An excellent story but one that reminds me of Madison’s Echolocations, an anthology edited by past poets laureate of Madison Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman.”

On PBS News Hour, Jeffrey Brown interviewed Claudia Castro Luna and others about Seattle’s Poetic Grid.

“Brown: The idea of the Poetic Grid is to capture a sense of place in a city going through rapid change, and to use the words of the people who live here. … Claudia Castro Luna dreamed up the online digital map in 2015, when she became Seattle’s first civic poet. …

“Luna: We all have stories to tell about the place we live in. And we all have memories attached to the place we live in. And so, [our workshop effort] was like opening up a faucet.

“And people have stories to tell. And that’s one of the marvelous things. At the end, I told them, you will write. You will see you will have a poem. And, indeed, they had one. …

“Brown: The poems for the grid span the city. Some are about home, memories of growing up in the affluent Blue Ridge neighborhood. Others are about homelessness, the cold concrete of a Seattle underpass.

“There are poems left in their native tongues, Spanish, Arabic. The writers run from well-established poets to first-timers. And they reflect the diversity of the changing city, where cranes dot the skyline.

“Luna: Some of the poems express very well what it feels like to not recognize the place you grew up in, because the buildings that you had so much attachment and were meaningful to you are no longer there …

“Koon Woon: I first moved in here when I couldn’t afford rent anywhere else in the city. And my uncle said well, there’s a room here for $60 a month. And I came here to look at it. And there’s this tiny little table. I said, I can put my typewriter on top of that. So, I took the room. …

“Brown: Koon Woon was born in China, but moved to Seattle in 1960. In the 1980s, he lived just a block from here, sometimes homeless, struggling with mental illness. His poem, ‘The High Walls I Cannot Scale,’ is now part of the grid. …

“For 17-year-old Lily Baumgart [Seattle Youth Poet Laureate], animals figured into her writing as well.

“Baumgart: The squirrels here are very aggressive. They expect to be fed by people. And so we’d write stories about why they’d come up to people, how humans’ interactions with animals change their behaviors. … Volunteer Park, they say there’s a giant squid in the reservoir, that if you could climb the fence, you could stick your hand into the bright water and feel his slimy body swimming by yours. When it rained we would hide in trees and feel their cold bark underneath our toes. We’d laugh so loud that the sky would be scared of us and our umbrella laughter. …

“Brown: Poetry brought something else to Claudia Castro Luna, a way to work through traumatic childhood memories of war in El Salvador that forced her family to leave their home when she was 14.

“Luna: It was a tremendous loss of place, of culture, of family, of language. [All] of my writing has to do with understanding that — what it meant to lose that place. And this is why I’m interested in other people’s lives and what they have to say about the place they occupy.”

More at PBS NewsHour, here. See the Poetic Grid here.

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Photo: Chuck Wolfe
Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood. Photographic urban diaries can help residents absorb what there are seeing and can ultimately influence city planning.

Cities are organic, changing, blossoming, decaying amalgams of individuals, buildings, dumps, businesses, trees, animals — so many elements that it is impossible to put your finger on what makes a great city great. It is even hard to get agreement on whether or not a particular city is great.

Seattle is a city that is very conscious of its idealistic character. And it’s one that keeps reaching higher.

Knute Berger at Crosscut writes, “No one wants a ‘better city’ more than Seattleites. … If anything is in our civic DNA, it is the drive of commerce and the determination to build not just a better city, but the ideal one: prosperous, just, beautiful.

“Tall order, and one around which there is much dispute. Charles Wolfe, a local land-use lawyer, author and urban observer has a suggestion to help us sort through some of our conflicts. He touts the personal documentation of the city we live in, urging us to create urban ‘diaries.’

“This isn’t self-indulgent ‘journaling’ but a thoughtful process of observing and recording a city — what works, where human activities thrive and what evokes our emotional responses.

“Wolfe’s latest book is Seeing the Better City (Island Press, $30), which is described as a tool kit for ‘how to explore, observe, and improve urban space.’ Wolfe — who has written for Crosscut and who is a friend — says the answer to a better city doesn’t start with a white board, an attitude or a bushel of land-use ordinances; it begins at the level of human experience and how we train ourselves to see it and understand it.

“Wolfe’s main medium is photography, aided by technology — geo-mapping, social media — to record his impressions and observations, which might range from how bikes, trains and pedestrians share space in Nice, France, to a homeless person’s tent with a grand view of Elliott Bay. …

“Why is keeping an urban diary worthwhile? Wolfe argues that it trains us to be better citizens, to care more and understand more about where we live. Therefore, we might be more motivated to attend meetings or offer insights and solutions into the planning process. …

“Wolfe’s book tells us urban diarists can also be useful to planners and policymakers. An urban diary ‘walk and talk’ workshop in Redmond created diaries of the town’s historic core — and that then informed the planning process. … When we all act like flâneurs, ‘trickle up’ urban planning can result. …

We don’t need to travel the world to be an urban diarist. Our own stomping grounds offer an infinite opportunity to feel and observe.”

More here.

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Attempts to improve housing for low-income people have often destroyed a sense of community. That’s eminently clear in Robert Kanigel’s new biography of Jane Jacobs, an activist who helped to end the construction of the large complexes known as the “projects.”

So there is some irony in a new Global Oneness film about a 70-year-old housing project that probably once destroyed a neighborhood but has since created its own sense of community. Today it is threatened with what sounds like very pleasant improvements.

Life is complicated.

The Global Oneness Project has interviewed Yesler Terrace residents and created a film to spark discussion of the pluses and minuses of revitalization.

Even the Walls is a short documentary about the multi-generational residents living within Yesler Terrrace, a public-housing neighborhood in downtown Seattle grappling with the forces of gentrification.

“For over 70 years, Yesler has been home to thousands of Asian, Asian American, African, African American, Native American, Hispanic, and Caucasian residents. The 30-acre property is being redeveloped quickly and the residents are being forced to make a decision — collect their memories and belongings and leave, or return to a place they know well, but do not recognize due to heavy reconstruction.

Even the Walls chronicles the intimate stories and experiences from the residents of Yessler and defines the human connection to home and community.”

The film is here. Lesson plans for teachers are here. And the good intentions of the City of Seattle are described here.

Photo: Seattle Housing
In an organic 70-year process, the residents of Seattle’s somewhat worn Yesler Terrace have made the “projects” into a real community. So not everyone is thrilled that improvements are afoot.

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Don’t throw it out. Fix it. That’s the philosophy in the”Repair” Café movement, which I learned about through the Christian Science Monitor, which highlights articles on people who “make a difference.”

It points to Kelly McCartney at Shareable.net, who writes: “In the Netherlands, mom and former journalist Martine Postma stumbled onto an idea that tacks the word ‘repair’ onto the familiar green mantra, ‘reduce, re-use, recycle.’ The result is community-based Repair Cafés where folks come together to fix their broken items. What started as a few neighbors in Amsterdam helping each other out has, two years later, become a much bigger deal, with 30 groups springing up around the country. …

“As Ms. Postma surmised, ‘Sustainability discussions are often about ideals, about what could be. After a certain number of workshops on how to grow your own mushrooms, people get tired. This is very hands on, very concrete. It’s about doing something together, in the here and now. …

“Similar endeavors have begun to crop up in the United States, as well. Sidling up alongside tool-lending libraries in a nice way, groups like the West Seattle Fixers Collective and the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project host do-it-yourself fix-it events and classes to help community members make needed repairs on broken items.” Read more here.

This reminds me of resilience circles, another people-helping-people movement that seems to be taking hold in the United States. Check out the word on resilience circles here.

Photograph: Jerry Lampen/Reuters/File


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